Thursday, July 29, 2010

And here my troubles began: Romania then and now *

A recent comment by my friend and fellow blogger John, reminded me of one of the reasons I decided to start this blog. It was a realization I made last month while visiting the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, in Sighet : that perhaps one of the most cruel victories of the pre-1989 dictatiorship in my country was to erase collective memory as to its atrocities. Some of you may have noticed I included the Sighet Memorial in my list of contemporary art platforms in Romania. While the memorial is not dedicated to art (though you will find recent works of art scattered through the building) it is one of the best places to learn about the situation in Romania and Eastern Europe in the 1945-1989 period, moreover it is a space that makes one deeply aware of human suffering and endurance.

It sure feels that we need to collectively jog our memory now, when one of the most hated dictators in Europe, who ruled Romania like the tyrant that he was for decades, is being exhumed. It is hard to watch on TV images of people, most of them old people who lived in a repressive machine most of their adult lives, going to pilgrimages to Ceausescu's grave. It is more bewildering to read in a recent poll by IRES (Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy), that if elections were held next week, 41% (!!!) of the population would vote for Ceausescu! As part of the same study, we find out that 63% of Romanians believe they had better lives during communism. You know what I say to these people - my people? That they should at least consider that Ceausescu would have never allowed free elections in the first place! Maybe a reality check would jog their memory as to the constant surveillance and paranoia instilled by the Secret Police. Even if I was only 4 at the time, I will never forget the never-ending queues for basic food supplies, such as milk or bread and the empty shelves in markets filled only with plastic vegetables or meat, as a sadistic ornament. So I am having a really hard time trying to understand how two thirds of us are nostalgic for the dictatorship.

Now more than ever we need more institutions like the Sighet Memorial to remind us of how much we wanted our freedom back in the 80s and 90s, how many were tortured and killed during the regime, how all of us have been traumatized for generations to come by the apparatus some people would willingly want to take over their lives again. So my entry today serves a double purpose: to familiarize my readers who have limited knowledge of the socio-economic-political transformations that have been sweeping through Romania in the past two decades, and at the same time it is a historical marker of the economic crisis pulling apart the public sphere. The path to democracy unanimously acquiesced in 1989 is starting to unravel as those who once shouted "Better dead than communist!" are now erased by those laying wreaths and tears on the grave of the dictator.

Eastern European historiography is commonly approached in terms of before and after 1989. What was before, is generally perceived as a totalitarian system of control, while after represents a period of transition to democracy and free market economy. The account of these past weeks events in Romania seems to challenge that description, illuminating the tension between the outside perception of the structure of things and the reality on the ground. I tend to reject this binary representation of history,because I think Romania is a country that falls outside these lines.

There is perhaps no better example to my objection, than the evolution of The Palace of the Republic, Ceausescu's most hated project in Bucharest now turned Parliament building and art museum. The building was started in 1984 and left a permanent scar in the geographical and human memory of the capital: about nine Orthodox churches, six Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches and over 30.000 private residencies were demolished to make way for the architectural embodiment of the Socialist paradise envisioned by the communists. It was never finished, and even today undisclosed sums are being pilled to make bewildering additions (like an underground car park) to this monstrosity. In 1990, in an attempt to dislocate meaning by altering its function, The Palace of the Republic was, without any referendum, transformed over night into The House of the People and then The Palace of the Parliament.

This autocratic decision (by the National Salvation Front/ Social Democratic Party) to house the democratic structure of the new Romania in a former dictator's palace seemed more like neo-communism at the time. It certainly got severely criticized by the general public as well as civic groups such as the Group for Social Dialogue,the Civic Alliance and We, the thugs. Even more criticized was the PSD's (Social Democratic Party) directive to create a national museum for contemporary art (MNAC) in the northern wing of the same building in 2004. Again without any referendum or consultation of the artists, art historians, architects etc., this was decidedly a political dictate meant to bolster then prime minister Adrian Nastase's bid for the presidency. And thus, the usage of freedom and democracy in post 1989 Romania seemed from the start more like mis-usage, since it remained the privileged of a handful of politicians (like not so long ago it was in the hands of Ceausescu and the Party), who built their moral status by promoting art and culture that corresponded to their own definitions of fairness and equality. To this day, politics, media, culture and businesses remain intertwined in corrupt ways, violating democratic ideals.

It is against this backdrop that some of the most exciting Romanian artists have forayed their bid to work in a system fraught with bureaucracy, corruption and insecurity, but a system that calls for creative solutions. Many artists and cultural workers derive their creative energies from failure and the frustrations of working along fixed directions. While limitations may turn to openings for some, the question still remains, will we ever be normal or has communism already won?

*Kudos to those of you who caught on to my title reference.
**Image credit: Dan Perjovschi, Postmodern ex-communist, 2006

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Artist Spotlight : Ioana Nemes

While I am preparing my longer posts on the socio-political-cultural developments in Romania after WW2, I thought I would present a most exciting young artist working in Bucharest, Ioana Nemes. I met Ioana for the first time in February 2010 when I was working on the exhibition Comrades of Time at Pavilion Unicredit in the capital. I was intrigued by her Monthly Evaluations project, which she presented as part of the exhibit, a seemingly autobiographical work in which the artist analyzed and monitored herself, trying to objectively examine how she handled daily problems. The image I've chosen for this entry illustrates such a piece realized for the U-TURN Quadriennal for Contemporary Art, Copenhagen, 2008.

Born in 1979 in Bucharest, Nemes was a professional handball player for nine years until a knee injury cut her athlete career short. She decided to apply to art school and graduated in 2002 from the Photo-video department at the Art University of Bucharest. Her work addresses the personal, social, economic and geographical context of art production in Romania, questioning the framework and its principles. In Monthly Evaluations, an ongoing project since 2005, the artist uses color, text as well as a system of five parameters: physical (F), emotional (E), intellectual (I), financial (F) and chance (D). By focusing on how she herself produces art, Nemes has developed a tool through which systems (such as institutions or societies) can be analyzed over time. In the chaotic period of transition between communism and capitalism, modernism and postmodernism, the artist engenders a critical perspective that lays the foundation to a space enabling art production in Romanian society - a country fraught with conservatism when it comes to contemporary art and culture.

My interpretation of her work only scratches the surface of Nemes's range, so I invite you to discover more of her projects here. And if you're passing through Bucharest in September, you can see her exhibit Expensive Fiasco/ Cheap Success at the Center for Visual Introspection.

How would you devise an objective system to analyze yourself through which you could discover larger trends in your own society? Is such a system wholly objective or does it even matter to the outcome?

Monday, July 26, 2010

A visit to ICCA (International Center for Contemporary Art)

Last week I was invited by the Fulbright Educational Advising Center (FEAC) in Bucharest to give a presentation on Graduate Admissions to U.S. Universities. I have been an enthusiastic supporter of the Center for a good 5 years now: not only do they give Fulbright scholarships yearly, but they are an excellent free resource for any Romanian student or scholar interested in post-secondary and graduate programs in the US. Needless to say I successfully benefited from their wisdom and study materials when I was accepted at Duke University back in 2005, and I am more than happy to give back to the Center and their public.

While in Bucharest I visited the ICCA (International Center for Contemporary Art), where I was graciously shown around by its longtime director, Irina Cios. In 2010 Ms. Cios has received a CEC ArtsLink Fellowship and she will be working in the New York City area this fall, researching the effects of public art and artistic practices on communities.

So what is ICCA and how does it fit into the Bucharest art scene? Founded in 1999 in Bucharest the ICCA works as a resource center, creative lab and artistic platform and its mission is to promote Romanian contemporary art locally and internationally. It is located at the Ark , the old Commodity Exchange building in the Rahova-Uranus community, adjacent to the infamous House of the People/Romanian Parliament building. The original 1898 building has been recently revamped and turned into a creative industries and artistic expression outlet, where you can find companies from diverse sectors such as architecture, urban planning, multimedia, design and public relations.

For me one of the most exciting tools at ICCA is the documentary resource space, which boasts a database of Romanian artist (biographies, artist texts, interviews) as well as a sizable (over 3000 publications) library focused on Central and Eastern Europe and a multimedia archive. Although targeting mostly Romanian audiences, you can find quite a few publications, documents and DVDs also translated in English. Established in 1993, the resource space is one of the very few archives on art produced in this region, roughly from the 1950s to the present that is available to the general public in Romania. I cannot emphasize enough how important independent resource libraries are to young professionals in the arts and to the artists themselves, as documentation on contemporary art and exhibitions is virtually unavailable in traditional libraries or universities in this country. Although in the past 10 years or so there have been exponentially more art centers and artists to have websites in Romania, the situation before 1989 is hardly documented or available online. For international professionals interested in Romanian art, the situation is even more dire as only in the past years have these artists and centers been made bilingual (English & Romanian). But my blog is part of a growing effort to change that!

So drop by the ICCA on your next trip to Bucharest and take a look at the wealth of information they have, especially if you're interested in conceptual art, performance, new media or experimental art in Romania. Make sure you email them before hand to schedule your visit and tell them what you're interested in. The friendly ICCA team will be more than happy to assist in your research!

Another great reason to check out the center is the international artistic residency program they have been running since 2007, initiated by Irina Cios. The residency targets emerging artists and art professionals from Romania and abroad and takes place in a studio designed especially for this purpose in the Ark Space. So if you've been looking for an opportunity to do research in Romania, whether your an artist or working in an arts-related field, drop the ICCA team a line! They are always looking for bright, enthusiastic people to bring to Bucharest. You will learn from them as much as they will from you and you will be contributing to one of the most dynamic emerging art communities in Europe.

In addition to all these wonderful opportunities, the ICCA organizes exhibits, conferences and workshops in the ARK-1 space, also located in the Ark, through which they promote a multicultural and interdisciplinary perspective. What I really appreciated about their projects is that they are socially engaged and community oriented; you can get a sense of the civic values their collaborative efforts have emphasized over the years here.

With that, I leave you to ponder on the role of art institutions, both locally and internationally.What do you think about the dialogue between different cultural organizers and participants in your community? How do they make a difference ?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why Romanian Art Map?

Starting in August I will be a Ph.D student at Rutgers University in the Art History Department, where I am planning to investigate the art scene in Eastern Europe (specifically Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Czech Republic - but that may change) and the former Soviet Union, especially its evolution from 1945 to the present. I get asked what my area of specialization is quite a lot, and the first reaction when I mention this is that it's very narrow. Well, I actually think it's very broad because if you think of it there are a handful of authoritative texts on art produced in Eastern Europe and there is usually little documentation of artist texts, performances, objects or art spaces - and almost never in English. So one not only has to master Eastern European languages and Russian to be an expert in the field, but one has to translate back into English and make sense of the local culture for an audience that has probably little or indeed, no exposure to the specific histories, experiences and documents. So I have my work cut out for me for the next six to eight years, maybe longer.
With this in mind, I decided to start this blog to keep a virtual record of the projects generated by diverse participants in the Romanian art scene, from artists to art critics to curators and the public, in an attempt to re-examine its structure openly. The selection of material being presented is subjective and flexible and, at the same time, I hope it will be a useful springboard for anyone interested in contemporary art, art institutions and/or the Romanian social, cultural and political spheres. For this reason I chose to write in English.
This is not an authoritative presentation, but the point of view of a Romanian educated in the West trying to make sense of her home culture. In other words it is the product of living in two very different reference systems at once. This is also the position of a scholar critical of the art market, who believes the power of contemporary art lies in its potential for socio-political critique and involvement. Having said that, I am strongly in favor of those commercial spaces that support upcoming artists and singular projects, laying the scene for more conceptual endeavors.
Each blog entry will be focused on a particular space, person(s) or publication, highlighting their specific role within their social milieu and larger networks, both local and international. By choosing this structure I hope to emphasize possibilities for continuity and cooperation within a largely fragmented art scene. But to begin with, on the right-hand side of the blog, you will find an updated list of art platforms in Romania, some controversial, some independent, some commercial, some all of the above, that make-up its ever changing art and culture. Where available, I have linked the English version of the sites so they become available to a wider audience.